"Classics Rock! is the best of both worlds--music and books."
-- CNBC.com "Bullish on Books" blog

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tolstoy/Bob Hillman

Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy knew everything there is to know about you Bob Hillman sings in his song Tolstoy, from his 2001 album Welcome to My Century.  The line could be an acknowledgment of the Russian writer's insight into the human condition, but more likely it is addressed to a specific individual.  The song depicts an intimate personal relationship using Tolstoy's works as the context and backdrop:  War and peace and right and wrong/Gargantuan themes, impossibly long/Anna Karenina the ill-starred lover speaks to me/She draws a breath and whispers my name/I’m exactly the same as a Russian count in 1823/And he’s exactly like me.  Hillman's song was selected by Artists For Literacy for inclusion on the SIBL Project, a CD of Songs Inspired By Literature released in 2002, which was produced to raise funds and support for their education and outreach efforts.  "I've never heard of this Mr. Bob Hillman," Susan Stamberg said in an NPR story about the SIBL Project, "but that song about Tolstoy is enough to make you want to pick up War And Peace and start reading it."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sylvia Plath/Ryan Adams

In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen's character Alvy Singer sums up Sylvia Plath as an "interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality."  Ryan Adams' song Sylvia Plath, from his 2001 album Gold, takes a more expansive approach.  I wish I had a Sylvia Plath Adams sings in the first line, a fantasy he repeats a number of times.  It is important to note that Adams' song isn't necessarily about the Sylvia Plath, the poet and author of the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, but about a Sylvia Plath--he appears to be citing her as the archetype for a certain kind of exotic, creative, mysterious, and mercurial woman.  Adams is known to keep a copy of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, and some have found specific references to Plath's life in the lyrics (e.g., While she was swimming away, she'd be winking at me/Telling me it would all be okay/Out on the horizon and fading away is thought to be a reference to a suicide attempt in which Plath tried to drown herself).  However, it's hard to draw lines between Plath's biography and Adams' lyrics, and critics took a broader view of the song in their reviews of Gold.  "He dreams of meeting his own dark little poetess on 'Sylvia Plath,'" Billboard noted, while CMJ New Music Monthly said,"'Sylvia Plath' turns out to be a romantic fantasy instead of the expected razor-on-the-wrist confessional."

Submitted by Stephen Hughes.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Layla/Derek and the Dominos

The personal drama behind the rock classic Layla, from the 1970 album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos, is well known:  In the song Eric Clapton expressed his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of his good friend George Harrison.  Eventually Harrison and Boyd were divorced, Clapton and Boyd were married (for a time), and the three somehow remained friends throughout.  Less well known are the literary origins of the song: In writing the lyrics, Clapton drew upon The Story of Layla & Majnun by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi.  He first learned of the work when he was involved with another young woman, Alice Ormsby-Gore. "With her wistful quality and the Arab clothes she used to dress in, she was straight out of a fairy story," Clapton wrote in his 2008 book Clapton: The Autobiography. "This fantasy was encouraged by [playwright and actor] Ian Dallas, who told me the tale of Layla and Majnun, a romantic Persian love story in which a young man, Majnun, falls passionately in love with the beautiful Layla, but is forbidden by her father to marry her and goes crazy with desire."  For another song on the album, I Am Yours, Clapton adapted the lyrics directly from the text of Layla and Majnun.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bogey Music/Paul McCartney

"Bogey Music," from Paul McCartney's 1980 album McCartney II, is based on a children's book about slimy, smelly creatures who dwell underground and revel in all things disgusting.  The liner notes clarify:  "'Bogey Music' was inspired by Raymond Briggs' book Fungus the Bogeyman, published by Hamish Hamilton, London in 1977.  Bogeymen live deep beneath the earth.  Their lifestyle is almost opposite to that of the people on the surface, who they call 'dry cleaners.'  Bogeymen hate music and prefer wet, slimy clothes to warm and clean ones. But the younger generation rebel and develop a taste for rock and roll and cleanliness. 'Bogey Music' is the first record made by 'dry cleaners' for the expanding Bogey market."  Unfortunately that market, like the Bogeymen themselves, remained underground and never really emerged.  The song, a sort of synthesized rockabilly dance pop number, was not to everyone's taste (Rolling Stone dismissed it as an inferior novelty song) but McCartney was fond enough of the concept to record a companion piece called '"Bogey Wobble."  This second track didn't make it to the final album but circulated for years in bootleg form.  Sir Paul made his own foray into writing for children with a book called High in the Clouds, published in 2005.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Odessa/The Stone Coyotes

We're bending the Classics Rock! format a bit to feature The Stone Coyotes, the real-life trio that served as the inspiration for the fictional band Odessa in Elmore Leonard's 1999 novel Be Cool.  The book continues the adventures of loan shark-turned-movie producer Chili Palmer from Leonard's 1990 novel Get Shorty.  The Acknowledgments page in Be Cool reads:  "The following songs were composed by Barbara Keith for The Stone Coyotes and are used by permission of The Stone Coyotes (www.stonecoyotes.com): Church of the Falling Rain, Hammer On the Nail, My Little Runaway, The Changing of the Guard, and Odessa."  All the songs appear on the Stone Coyotes' 1999 album Church Of The Falling Rain, but only "Odessa" was written specifically for the book.  Leonard refers to these songs in the novel, and even quotes some lyrics, but in the fictional context of Be Cool they are attributed to the band Odessa and its founder/lead singer, Linda Moon.  Prior to the book's publication a promotional CD was created that featured Leonard reading passages from the novel and the five Stone Coyotes songs.  In the CD's liner notes Leonard wrote:  "In Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty, Chili Palmer wanders into the music business and becomes the manager of a rock band.  That was the idea, but what kind of rock would they play? Punk? Metal? I had no idea until I saw the Stone Coyotes at the Troubadour in L.A.--'AC/DC meets Patsy Cline'--and I knew I was listening to my band, Odessa, for the first time: straight-ahead rock with a twang. Chili and I both love it."  The AC/DC-Patsy Cline comparison is by a reviewer for Toronto Now referring to the Stone Coyotes, but Leonard works it into a scene in the novel in which Linda Moon describes Odessa to Chili:  "Our style is bare-bones, straight-ahead American rock 'n' roll, three chords but no scream or anything pretentious, like hair.  It's metal with a twang and if you can't imagine that think of AC/DC meets Patsy Cline.  A critic said that about us one time."  Trivia note:  Leonard's 1985 novel Glitz features a lounge singer named Linda Moon, but it's not the same character.  The Linda of Be Cool, who was born Linda Lingeman, describes meeting the Linda Moon of Glitz (her real name) in a Miami nightclub and getting her permission to use Moon as a stage name.